By Akin Owolabi
The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) went on total boycott of work for six cumulative months (non-stop) last year and the union is still spitting fire, roaring to go again. Members of the association collected and pocketed their salaries in full leaving their students worsted in the battle of wits with the Federal Government. Its polytechnic counterpart, Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP), has equaled, even wishing to exceed the ASUU feat in its current trade dispute with the Federal Government over trite, nay, mundaneissues. The third of the three tiers of tertiary institutions in Nigeria, colleges of education,is equally restive. And these have acquired such notoriety on the basis of their being owned by governments – state and federal. Transfer ownership to private individuals and behold the most peaceful and serene academic environment ever. There are cogent reasons for the humble submission for privatisation or a shock treatment.
Another panacea for the restiveness in the academy is to outlaw unionism or clip its wings. Either of the approach is necessary in view of the suffocating licentiousness characterising tertiary institutions’ trade unionism today.
ASUP national leader, Chibuzor Asomugha,was theatrical on the television tubes last week urging concerned Nigerians to plead with the proprietors of the polytechnics – governments – to be sympathetic with the thousands of students who were about losing one academic calendar in the wake of the industrial action. The association, sorry trade union, threatened to flood the streets of Abuja to press its case against government and curry public sympathy. What a crocodile’s tears. ASUP declared trade dispute thus employing its most potent industrial weapon and is about whipping public support. Which is more heartless and insensitive of the two disputants? ASUP, of course, that is further committing illogic of appealing to pity. Which party declared war which should embrace truce?
Mr. Asomugha has refused to give us the sole reason for wanting to take to the streets. The recent ‘no work, no pay’ approach of government has set ASUP’s roof on fire and the union is no longer at ease nor could it sleep comfortably in its burning house. The trade union is approaching the sixth month of callously locking out its students and continuously cashing its fat salaries despite wreaking havoc on that segment of tertiary education and stultifying the collective aspirations of the young ones latching on the system. March salary was long in coming and ASUP is taking to the streets. Why this time Chibuzor? Shouldn’t it have come months earlier or much later after the strike has lasted one year? No doubt, ‘no work, no pay’ should be a strong clause in the industrial law as it encapsulates justice and reins in rascals in whatever form. It should be the first curb on crass insensitivity on display in the Nigerian academy.
ASUP will definitely curry a welter of sympathy from the majority whose emotions are already swayed on the side of pathetic fallacy. The sing-song is bound to be – let governments pander to the union, accept its 13-point demands and end the dispute.
Such position can only err on the sides of untruth and indiscretion.
Two of ASUP’s demands are even older than its present crop of leaders. It wants the institutions’ final products rated at par with those from the universities and advocates, the establishment of a regulatory body as with the colleges of education and the universities. Very good. These issues are at variance with the wisdom behind the establishment of each tier of tertiary institutions. Though old, the ideas are immutable and instinctively wise. The three are not and can never be the same. It is sheer naivety and playing the ostrich to seek to make the three similar in all respects. A time it was when National Certificate in Education (NCE) holders were admitted to the National Youth Service scheme on N160 monthly allowance. The products of the other two were on N180 per month. The NYSC law had to be amended to phase out NCE. The feuding lecturers did not acquire their teaching qualifications from the polytechnic system and neither are they agitating that these colleges of technology must award the three grades of university degrees in addition to the two diplomas assigned to them by law.
It is ignorance par excellence to think the disparity issue could be amended through strike. It demonstrates the shallowness of the wits of the lecturers in that system. Address the foundation statute and seek amendment, if possible, through the National Assembly. The current ASUP comic amounts to peddling sophistry and inferiority complex in another name.
It is fraud of the highest order for anyone to collect fat salary for months for work not done. Young Nigerians sacrificed their lives in tens of thousands to keep Nigeria one during the 30-month civil war. Most of the survivors were not paid the arrears of the salary for which they almost died on the flimsy excuse that there was no proper record. These unfortunate citizens could not afford the luxury of a feeble protest as such would be sternly viewed as mutiny, punishable with death by firing squad. On the contrary, the academics are endangering, traumatising and buffeting the psyche of the nation’s youths, delaying their advancement in life and inculcating the wrong notions of life in them and still collect handsome salaries even while boycotting work on end.
Private tertiary institutions are springing up with the rapidity of mushrooms. The qualities of the these in terms of staffing and facilities are not comparable with the older and better organised public institutions. They borrow (mercenary) lecturers from the well staffed public institutions to meet accreditation criterion. Yet, those who secure employment in these commercialisation of intelligence colleges cannot gang up in any form neither can they go on strike. Those slaving in these private institutions covet the opulence of their public sector colleagues who engage in private practice to boot, sexploit female students and commit all forms of extortion with flagrant impunity.
Vast majority of Nigerians get nothing but sadness, tears and sorrow from the sloppy, wicked system in their country and round about. Yet, those having their fill are exploiting the have-nots and strangulating their young ones in every form. Let the public academic lecturers leave in droves to the private institutions to see whether they can rear their ugly heads in any form of unionism.
There are some who retired from public schools only to establish private institutions where they accord close to slave status to their hapless employees – paying meagre salaries and sacking them at will.
It is really sad that governments are playing to the gallery under the guise of democracy. Military President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida twice ordered the university system shut down each time for one year to curb irresponsible unionism. He was prevailed upon to rescind the decision on those occasions. Students enrolling at the University of Ilorin are sure they would not exceed the four-year academic calendar. The crisis plaguing the three tiers of public institutions requires shock therapy. Governments need muster the will to sail through the horns of the dilemma of staff unionism in these institutions. After all, no worker is conscripted and those who are bent on throwing spanner in the works should be shown the way out. The Ilorin issue lasted nine years to resolve and not all those affected returned, even after legal victory. Nigeria has to move past crass irresponsibility in all forms including restoring sanity in its academy.
*Owolabi, former newspaper editor, writes from Ota, Ogun State